NCAA women playing with regional fire

UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth and Stephanie Kono watch the Bruins finish at the 2011 NCAA Women's Regional in Indiana.

UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth and Stephanie Kono watch the Bruins finish at the 2011 NCAA Women's Regional in Indiana.

The best way to describe what I witness each year at NCAA regionals is to call it a Houdini escape trick. This past weekend might have been the best demonstration yet.

With lengthy delays in the final round of the NCAA West Regional in Auburn, Wash., and the Central Regional in South Bend, Ind., it is truly amazing that each player in the field was able to complete 54 holes. That sort of luck can’t continue.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to prevent a serious issue before it happens, or as they say in this game, it’s time to play percentage golf.

The protocol for a regional event if all groups do not complete 54 holes is to revert to the 36-hole scores, with the top eight teams after two complete rounds qualifying for nationals. This was nearly the scenario in Washington and Indiana. Had that happened in the Central, Wake Forest would not have had the chance to advance. Scores after two rounds would have been used, and Northwestern which had been inside the top eight after 36 holes would have moved on.

To prevent such a travesty from happening, the women’s game needs to change its regional format.

The men fixed their regional format two years ago for obvious reasons. With 27 teams playing in three regionals, the slightest mishap can alter the tournament in a negative way. So instead, the NCAA Men’s Golf Committee went to six regionals with 13 or 14 teams each, depending on the site. That virtually assures that all teams playing in the same wave will face the same conditions be able to complete 54 holes.

The women don’t need to follow that model because finding six regional spots would be difficult. But if they did, you would have six 12-team fields, with the top four advancing to the NCAA finals.

Here are two suggestions that should be considered:

• Four regionals with 18 teams at each site and the top six teams advancing. The task of finding one more spot would not be that difficult, and the NCAA Championship would still consist of 24 teams. That way, the 18 teams at each regional site would play in the same wave and experience similar conditions.

• Another option is tokeep the current format but institute a 36-hole cut. The top 18 teams after 36 holes would play in the final round. This would eliminate pressure being put on teams by the tournament directors and officials in the last round to try and force the completion of 54 holes (like we heard about in Washington). This also would save schools that don’t make the cut money because departing flights would be easier to catch and there would be one less night in a hotel.

Using the term “cut” has been a no-no with the NCAA. //But cuts are all right – this is golf, after all. In fact, regional play is really nothing but a qualifier to the national championship, and many qualifiers in golf come with some sort of cut.

Several years ago, we were told that regional play was about the student-athlete experience and that a cut would damper that. Please.

Have you ever stuck around to watch the players in the last groups at regionals finish on Saturday afternoon? Workers at the host facilty usually are taking down signage and removing rope, and the buzz around the event has is completely gone. Imagine a PGA Tour or LPGA event at which the leaders are finished by noon and the bottom half of the field is still playing.

A better, more exciting experience would be seeing the leaders finish toward the end, along with bubble teams that are still in the mix. Having players tee off on Nos. 1 and 10, while on the ninth and 18th greens people are cheering and celebrating hardly makes it a good experience for the bottom six teams. Either of the above two options also would reduce the possibility that weather issues or delays could render meaningless a team’s final-day rallyif scores were reverted back to 36 holes.

It’s time for the NCAA Women’s Golf Committee to recognize that and do the right thing.

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